“When were you last in the classroom?” people sometimes ask when I venture an education opinion. Well, my work till I retired in 2002 took me into schools quite often. But the question really means, “actually teaching.” For me that was 1987. A year earlier I had left the old Department of Education, where I had been Assistant-Director, Curriculum Development, to set up as an education consultant.
Today, such people are plentiful, but then it was a brave and reckless thing to do. Though they appeared envious, most of my peers seemed to think it was a rash step. And just like when my first marriage broke up they would come in to my office and tell me their marital problems, so now they talked about their ambitions to own a ten-acre block, to paint watercolours, or grow lilies. One, whose expertise was commerce, advised me to invest heavily in shares.“By far your quickest return.” (She got her fingers badly burnt when the market slumped). This country boy paid off the mortgage and invested in the best available computer hardware.
Janice Campbell, principal of Wellington East Girls College, bluntly put the question. "My head of English has received promotion. The other school wants her as soon as possible. I can't get a replacement until the end of the May holidays. Could you do a two-month stint? Help both schools and put your money where your mouth is."
I demurred. "Other pressures."
"Nonsense. What you mean is that you’re not up to it."
What an irresistible challenge? So unexpectedly, after re-experiencing the corridor tumult before school begins, I faced my form, a fifth, multicultural, mainly second-years repeating School Certificate. I came in cold – the mana built up when I was well-known Head of English long gone - what did this bearded old guy know about the real world, their world? The old tricks came back quickly, eye contact, keep moving around the room, maintain lesson momentum, react to any inattention before it grows larger. Credibility slowly built up but it took time. I began experiencing a long forgotten emotion, the elation of a successful lesson. When I left in May the class petitioned me to stay.
As teachers tend to do I reverted to previous habits. From the known one moves into the unknown. Further, I was in a caretaker capacity. There were three exam classes and whatever the merits of the system their life opportunities were dependent - more than they should have been - upon their marks at the end of the year.
The class had already been given Patricia Grace's novel Mutuwhenua. By a mixture of comprehension questions, I tried to drive them into the story and the issues and to get them writing themselves. Except for a few new arrivals in New Zealand they read better than I’d anticipated. Maybe unwittingly I’d absorbed the constantly reiterated claim that literacy was falling. Newcomers all took English-as-a-second-language lessons as well as ordinary classroom work. With this tuition their reading steadily improved.
Most enjoyed the novel. They liked its "New Zealandness". The issues were relevant, trying to live in two cultures at once, respect for their elders, leaving home, marriage, identity. As a group they were articulate, but very wary of my judgment. They watched my face as they gave their opinion trying to gauge whether their answer was correct or not. “Boy, you’d make a great poker-player,” one said. Though complaining about the number of written tasks, they wrote competently though slowly. I believe in handing back marked work the next day if possible. As they realised this was a pattern they began to take their writing more seriously. Pointless arguing with them that the marks were not as important as learning from my corrections and their mistakes. The old trick of slowly raising the level of their marks worked. If you believe you are doing better, you do better. On the whole their writing varied between good and satisfactory. And I realised they were writing in other subjects, not just history and geography but art, science and home economics.
But they didn’t listen. Not only were they noisy, oral instructions were not heard, let alone coded. After several abortive attempts I reverted to writing all instructions on the blackboard. I had anticipated the experience to be energy sapping. But I had forgotten how demanding youngsters are. The more you give the more they will take – an experience like being pulled in different directions by powerful vacuum cleaners.
I was 53 years old. I felt sorry for teachers when they raised the superannuation age to 65. If they raise it to say 67 it would be even crueller.